LeoLabs Partners with SpaceX for Rideshare Mission Support

LeoLabs is pleased to announce that we will provide our Launch and Early Orbit tracking service to SpaceX’s customers as part of their SmallSat Rideshare Program. Drawing on the success of providing this service to satellite operators on the Transporter-1 mission, LeoLabs will provide this support to users for the next six Transporter missions plus multiple smaller rideshares. LeoLabs Launch and Early Orbit is a real-time operational satellite tracking service that has been proven to help satellite operators reliably identify and establish contact with their payloads, with data deliveries beginning just hours after mission launch.

SpaceX’s willingness to provide this one-of-a-kind tracking service from LeoLabs to their customers shows their commitment to safe and responsible operations in space. LeoLabs is proud to support these SpaceX rideshare missions setting an example of responsible space access!

We’re currently gearing up to track the Transporter-2 mission, and in addition to supporting SpaceX’s customers, we’re also excited to once again partner with Spaceflight Inc. to provide the same support for their customers being deployed from their two orbital transfer vehicles (OTVs), Sherpa-FX2 and Sherpa-LTE1, flying on this mission.

So what goes into operationally supporting missions of this size for the LeoLabs team, and how do we know our service is helpful to satellite operators? In this post we’ll take a look back at our support for
Transporter-1.

The Largest Rideshare Mission

On January 24, 2021, SpaceX launched the largest rideshare mission in history, named Transporter-1, with a total of 143 payloads on board. LeoLabs supported this mission with our Launch and Early Orbit service that delivers rapid data and insights to mission operators starting just hours after launch.

SpaceX utilizes this same Launch and Early Orbit service for their dedicated Starlink launches, as described in this post. For the Transporter-1 mission, LeoLabs provided this support directly to SpaceX’s customers — the satellite operators flying the rideshare payloads. We also worked with Spaceflight, extending this service to their customers’ payloads deployed from the Sherpa-FX1 OTV spacecraft.

The 143 payloads deployed from this mission were as follows:

  • 100 primary rideshare payloads deployed directly from the Falcon 9 second stage
  • 10 Starlink satellites deployed by SpaceX after the other rideshare payloads were deployed, and after re-igniting the Falcon 9 second stage
  • 13 rideshare payloads on-board Spaceflight’s Sherpa-FX1 OTV spacecraft, deployed approximately three hours after launch
  • 20 rideshare payloads on board D-Orbit’s ION spacecraft, deployed strategically over a period of time in the weeks following launch as the vehicle performed orbit phasing maneuvers.
Transporter-1 payload stack (Image credit: Spaceflight)

Through our agreements with both SpaceX and Spaceflight, our launch operations team was on-console tracking these deployed payloads for the first seven days following launch.

The Transporter-1 mission marked the first time a launch provider or satellite integrator has offered operational support for their customers that extends beyond the launch and deployment itself.

In the case of Transporter-1, SpaceX launched the payloads and deployed them into the proper orbit, at which point LeoLabs began tracking them and sending daily updates to all operators and integrators on the mission.

The plot below, generated by a LeoLabs software application designed to quickly process and associate raw measurement data, shows the train of deployed customer satellites and payloads from one of the many radar passes collected during our week of support. Each small streak (diagonal line) is a series of measurements collected on a single object. The larger arc running down the middle of the two lower plots represents the simulated path of the TLE used to schedule our radar observation time (notably right down the middle of the plot — a scheduling bullseye!)

LeoLabs data plot showing raw tracking measurements on the Transporter-1 deployed payloads.

These tracking data plots, generated multiple times per day for Transporter-1, allowed us to quickly discern the number of objects detected, along with relative spacings and size information. We then mapped these detected objects to the planned order of deployment provided by SpaceX and began making predictions about which objects were which.

Rapid support for satellite operators

We also established an open line of communication with the operators on this mission, and were very pleased with the high levels of engagement and participation throughout our seven-day support window. Within 24 hours of launch, we were informed that over 90% of all the payloads had been contacted independently by their operators — a great milestone for a mission of this size. Confirmations for additional contacts were made in the following days.

Over our week of support, LeoLabs offered assistance to those customers who needed it, and we were successful in helping multiple owner-operators with one or more of the following:

  • Locating their satellite to establish communications when they had not yet been able to do so on their own
  • Improving fidelity of the existing communications signal with more accurate ground antenna pointing
  • Confirming which objects in the public satellite catalog (which NORAD IDs) corresponded with their satellites

We coordinated with more than a dozen satellite operators and mission integrators, providing support at various levels. As one example, LeoLabs worked with D-Orbit to refine orbit prediction accuracy of its ION-SCV 002 spacecraft in the days following launch. D-Orbit provided this feedback to LeoLabs and SpaceX following completion of our support for the mission:

“Our ION spacecraft utilizes S-band for communications, which requires very precise pointing of our ground antennas. As the many payloads were quite close to one another in the first few days of the mission, we needed an improved estimate of ION’s precise location. LeoLabs was able to successfully help us identify our satellite from those surrounding us, at a time when none of the objects had yet been added to the public satellite catalog. Their support enabled us to establish more reliable contact quickly so we could perform our system checkouts.” — Lorenzo Ferrario, D-Orbit CTO.

What makes this service unique for satellite operators is the rapid turnaround time for receiving actionable information — our Launch and Early Orbit tracking service enables same-day responses with the latest on-orbit data and insights from the LeoLabs operations team.

We look forward to again supporting both SpaceX and Spaceflight customers on the upcoming Transporter-2 mission and beyond.

And finally, a big thank you to SpaceX for sending the LeoLabs team Transporter-1 mission patches as a token of appreciation!

Written by Matthew Shouppe, LeoLabs Director of Commercial Services

Tracking space debris in Low Earth Orbit. https://leolabs.space